His name was Gilbert – Gillie for short. In the nine months since we had brought him home, he’d found a life that he loved and a family who adored him. Yet, when it was all taken from him, in the eyes of the law it mattered no more than the loss of a mobile phone.
It has been 18 months since Gillie was stolen, but every moment of that day is seared on my brain. My husband asked if he should take him for his walk. I said, no, I would take him; I needed some fresh air. On such small decisions, lives can change forever.
I clipped on his lead and we stepped out of the front door, into the sunshine, never imagining that when I returned, it would be without Gillie.
I remember every step of that walk. I remember him on the playing field, chasing around with a lurcher and an Italian greyhound. The greyhound got a bit rough, so I picked Gillie up and made our excuses. I remember whispering in his ears – Gillie had magnificent ears, like a giant bat – about nasty bullies.
In a different field, I watched as he played with a spaniel; a gentler soul. I remember admiring the flowers, red poppies, giant daisies, cornflowers and thinking how lucky we were to live close to such a place as Hampstead Heath. I remember smiling as my tiny dog gambolled through the grass.
Then a dog walker with his pack crossed my path and for a moment I lost sight of Gillie. The scrum cleared. The spaniel was there, running towards his owner, but there was no sign of Gillie. I ran after the walker, who thought he’d seen a small dog heading for a nearby clump of trees. But Gillie wasn’t there either.
I tried to stay calm. After all, it was the middle of the morning and we were far from any road. Gillie had a tag with our name and number. Dogs run off on the heath all the time. We would be reunited.
When, some 20 minutes later, we still hadn’t found him, I began to panic. I phoned my husband, the Hampstead Heath constabulary, the local vets, the dog wardens and a neighbour in case Gillie had made his way home. Nothing.
By now my husband had arrived and others had joined in the search. People look out for each other’s dogs on the heath. Then someone said they’d seen a little dog matching Gillie’s description tied up to some railings.
I’ve never run so fast in my life and while I was running I was praying. I imagined scooping him up in my arms, holding him tight, calling my husband to say Gillie was safe and the three of us going home together. But he wasn’t there.
I went home, briefly, to charge my phone. A friend told me to contact Dog Lost, the UK’s largest lost and found for dogs. They charge nothing for their services and are run entirely by volunteers. I don’t know how I would have got through the next 24 hours without their practical and emotional support. They talked me through what to do next and created a poster for me to print out.
As dusk fell, my husband and I walked the streets, pinning up the posters with the photo of Gillie, his nose muddy from digging up a row of giant irises. How many times had I seen such posters, not even wanting to imagine what the dog and the owners must be going through. Now it was happening to us.
It got dark and we had to give up the search for that day. We waited through the night for a call saying he’d been found.
When it came, that next morning, it was from an RSPCA branch in a completely different part of London to say that Gillie was dead.
He’d been found in the middle of a main road, stripped of his harness and his collar with the tag. The RSPCA had identified him by his microchip. I remember screaming. I wanted to see him but they told me it was best I remembered him the way he had been.
My husband went anyway. The kind nurse who had examined Gillie’s body said his injuries were consistent with having been hit by a car. Other cars had run over him as he lay in the road. There were no signs of him having been mistreated. How could they tell with such a small body so badly injured? But they said they could and thank God, because anything else would have been unbearable.
Later, through walking the heath and talking to people who had been there that day, we found a witness who had seen three women approach Gillie and carry him off. Our little dog who’d never known anything but love and kindness had spent the final hours of his life with strangers, away from everyone and everything he knew.
Gillie greeted each day as if it were an armful of steak. It was impossible to be in his company and not feel better about the world. He had a family who adored him. He had his routines; his likes and dislikes. He had a bed with a red blanket that he never slept in because he slept in ours, and a box full of toys. His favourite was a fox, almost as big as Gillie himself. He had a garden that he patrolled with the pride of a landowner surveying his acres.
Yet, when someone took him away from this, from us, they did so with impunity. Because, while the police could not have been more sympathetic, they were limited in what they could do by the constraints of a law that is woefully outdated. They had no choice but to file it with any other theft – like that of a phone, a bag, a garden tool.
The women who grabbed Gillie, what were they thinking? What were they thinking when they stripped him of his collar and tag engraved with our number? They have not been found and we will never know. Just as we will never know what he went through in the 24 hours between him being taken and being found dead in the middle of the road.
I won’t describe the weeks and months that followed, but to say that for us, the world went dark, is no exaggeration.
A new little dog has brought us light and life, but also a constant fear of it happening again. Gillie was not a thing. He can never be replaced. Not a day goes by without us thinking of him; we see him everywhere. And because of the brutal way in which we lost him, even happy memories are stabs to the heart.
Every day another dog is wrenched from their happy life to live or die at the mercy of strangers. Left behind is an empty bed, a box of toys, a tin of treats, a soft blanket – and wounds that will never fully heal.
On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold is published by Arcadia Books. Buy your copy from Telegraph Books
For more information visit doglost.co.uk
To sign the petition to make pet theft a specific offence visit https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/560216